If there’s any doubt we live in a litigious world, one look at the music scene should erase that uncertainty right quick. Recent years have seen suits brought against Robin Thicke & Pharrell, Sam Smith, Led Zeppelin, Ed Sheeran, and many others. Taylor Swift was sued twice before breakfast and again while I typed that last sentence.
In previous decades, lifting bits of another song was considerably more tolerated, part of a long artistic tradition of taking inspiration and building your own creativity around it. Of course, artists could get huffy about their ideas being reused without credit, but a blurred line existed between acceptable and unacceptable, and it usually led to a grumble and a frown, not a court date. The rules for proving outright theft were also more stringent back in the day – it had to be blatant and specific, so not many cases ended up before a judge and jury. The rules now are a bit nebulous.
In today’s world of instantaneous information, we find out very quickly if one song sounds like another. A video with the new song overlaid on top of the original will find its way onto YouTube within hours of release, and plaintiffs are quick to sue over a few words, a few notes, an arrangement, or just a “feeling.” Back in the olden days, however, the general public would have to be familiar with a lot of music across a wide variety of genres in order to spot the inspiration.
Which brings us to “Venus” by The Shocking Blue, a popular Dutch band with a string of hits in their native land. The single was an instant success all across Europe, and when it arrived in the US, reached the summit of beauty and loving at #1 in early 1970. With that achievement, the band joined a select few one-hit wonders who scored a #1 for their lone hit, with none of their other singles before or after “Venus” reaching the Top 40.
In case you haven’t heard it for a while (or ever), allow me to play it for you now (well, not me, some guy with a nice sound system):
Alright. Some great pop-rockery there. A classic. Now have a little listen to this somewhat obscure song by The Big Three from 1963:
Shocking! Let’s look at another example, shall we? Led Zeppelin are notorious for this kind of thing. Let’s take their biggest hit, “Whole Lotta Love,” a song they claimed to have written in 1969. But perhaps you haven’t heard The Small Faces (who often shared concert stages with Jimmy Page while he was a member of The Yardbirds) performing “You Need Loving” in 1966, written by Willie Dixon:
Naughty lads! The iconic riff isn’t there, but otherwise it’s hard to claim it’s a different song. Zep eventually did have to give credit to Dixon on that one, but not to Steve Marriott of The Small Faces, who seemingly invented Robert Plant’s vocal style and mannerisms.
Not sure if this one was intentional or subconscious, but Radiohead’s “Creep” now bears writing credits for 70’s songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood due to the striking similarities with “The Air That I Breathe.”
Countless examples abound, both blatant and subtle, intentional and accidental, well known and barely known, and sometimes plain imagined. The composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” But then again, Stravinsky did not have to contend with compositions worth millions. Or with the internet.